Friday, March 28, 2014

Sense of Smell

      Have you ever wondered how insects talk to each other? If humans want to communicate with one another, we have several different ways to do it: we can visually communicate by wildly waving our hands at someone to get attention, we can yell at the person and use sound (audio) communication, or even physical communication by giving a parent a hug to show we love them. Insects use these methods of communication as well, but in different ways. For visual communication they use color and movements to get attention. Audio communication can be the buzzing of wings in a certain way, or squeaking sounds produced by squeezing air out of their spiracles (breathing holes). Physical communication could be grabbing a rival male by the horns like in Rhinocerus Beetles to let them know they better get out of the way.
Example of the male horns in the Rhinocerus Beetle on the far right. Image from Katrina Menard
    One type of communication that insects (and many other animals) use that we don't use as much anymore is chemical communication (chemosensory). To humans, this is smell, which in the past probably played a big role in communication with humans. Insects, though, use it to communicate constantly. For example, many female moths will leave a smell trail (the smell being pheromones) that the male moths detect with their fluffy antennae. The males then can follow the trail in the air to find them.
Example of a male silk moth found at a light sheet with its fluffy antennae. Image from Katrina Menard
    My main focus of research is plant bugs (Miridae), and those of us that work on them know that they also use chemical communication to find mates, plants to feed on, and other important information in their lives. For most plant bugs, the main "nose" for them to smell things are their antennae at the front of their heads. On these antennae they have lots of tiny hairs that pick up the molecules of different pheromones and smells to send the information to their brains.
Scanning Electron Micrograph of a plant bug (Spanagonicus albofasciatus) female showing all the hairs and shape of the antennae on their heads. Image from Katrina Menard
   When looking at one group of mirids in particular, in the genus Spanagonicus sp., it was pretty well known that the males and the females have differently shaped antennae. The males have a much "bigger" first and second segment of the antennae (if you count starting from the head, each "piece" of the antenna is a segment).
Male Spanagonicus specimen. Note how the first and second antennal segments are bigger than the image of the female above; they look more like footballs. Image from Katrina Menard
     So, I was wondering why the first and second antennal segment in the males is bigger than the females: what is it being used for? Taking a closer look at the underside of the male antennae, I found an opening in one of the common species around here in Oklahoma, Spanagonicus albofasciatus (albofasciatus meaning "white striped"). This opening is documented in any of the books or papers about the insect, so I wanted to take a closer look and see what was going on in there: were they there to "hear" females nearby, or "smell" females?
Underside of the second segment of the male antennae, showing the opening, which is filled with super-small hairs. Compare this to the image of the female antennae above! Image from Katrina Menard
      When we used the Scanning Electron Microscope to look as closely as we could to that opening, and we found that inside of the opening there are super-small hairs lining the inside. The hairs are so small, they can't even fit nerve cells in them! The width of each hair in there is 1/100th the width of a human hair. Because they are so small and can't fit nerves in them, we think they are being used to "smell" females and find them. However, we are still investigating exactly how the hairs actually work and test out if that really is what the males are using for finding females versus other things (food, etc.).
      So this spring as the flowers start coming out and we can literally start smelling the roses, these little bugs will also be about using this neat structure to smell the world around them too! And I'll be outside watching them to investigate how.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Spineless Sushi

     I am the new Collection Manager in the Department of Recent Invertebrates.  I am loving my job; it has been keeping me so busy that I've just now made the time to get my first post in.  After a long day, or week, I like to treat myself to sushi.  Sushi has become quite a happening food phenomenon.  As the interest has grown, more and more varieties of rolls have become available.  When I go to a new sushi restaurant I always like to try the rolls named after invertebrates, or that have invertebrate ingredients.

I am going to start with my personal favorite, the caterpillar roll.  There are some variations in the ingredients, but they always have eel on the inside and avocado on the outer top.  The eel sauce used to garnish the roll is what makes me want this roll every time I go for sushi.  It is sweet, with a mild tang.  There is no salty flavor to it, so it is a strong contrast to the flavor of soy sauce.

I really enjoy when the sushi chefs bring the caterpillar roll to life.  In the picture above, suckers from an octopus tentacle were used to give the appearance of eye, and sauce was used creatively to make antennae and legs.  Now, these are all anatomically incorrect, but I really appreciate the effort.

There are often variations on the caterpillar roll, where the eyes may be a
dash of spicy mayo (left image), there could be sesame seeds on top, or even roe (fish eggs, right image) used to decorate and add flavor.

My next favorite roll is the spider roll.  Here, the entire soft shell crab is battered, fried, and included whole in the roll.  The "soft shell" refers to when the crabs were harvested, not a particular kind of crab.  Crabs, like all arthropods, have a tough exoskeleton.  As crabs grow, they must shed their skin and develop a new one.  This process is called molting.  There is a short period of time after it molts where a crab is very soft, and this is when the crabs are harvested for a spider roll.  You can eat the entire crab, shell and all!  The mix of tempura crab and the soft shell give this roll a satisfying crunch.  My favorite pieces are the ends, because there is always some part of the crab sticking out!

Here you can see (left picture) the pincher poking out of the roll!  Yummy!

This spider roll (right picture, bottom right) was given the appearance of legs and antennae by creative use of the sauce.

I recently tried a grasshopper roll.  This looks a bit like a caterpillar roll with the avocado on the top, but it is quite different on the inside.  It had fried shrimp on the inside and some tangy barbecue sauce on the top that gave it a spicy kick!

The butterfly roll was very interesting because the ingredients changed half-way through "it's life" (ie, me eating it!).  It began with eel on top with a bit of seasoned mayo and a drizzle of eel sauce, and then morphed into salmon on top.  Throughout the inside was scallion.  This roll stood out for all the different flavor combinations at different sections of the roll.  The metamorphosis of flavors give the butterfly roll an apt name.

Last but not least, is my favorite roll, EVER: The double eel white roll.  While eels are vertebrates, I am including this because of the sauce artistry of what I interpret as an invertebrate.  This roll has white eel on the top and dark eel on the inside.  The sauce garnish was done in amazing fashion to kick it up a notch and keep me still thinking about this dish!  Fantastic!

So, what's next?  I have just found an interesting sushi restaurant, here in Norman, that has nigiri rolls (a small mound of rice with the meat laying on top) with sea urchin, mantis shrimp, sea prawn, octopus tentacle, saltwater clam and more!  I can't wait to try these next time!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

New Contributer, New Stories!

Returning from a hiatus this summer and fall while trying to focus on grants and publication, we'll be posting more to the blog in the upcoming month to catch up on what has been going on in the collection and the museum. A few things first!

- Our new Collection Manager Andy Boring will be contributing to our blog in the future. His first upcoming post will be about the interface of sushi and insects. Didn't think they could mix? Neither did I, and I hope you're looking forward to his post as much as we are!

- We had a manuscript be accepted for publication that was based on the research with our Honors Research Assistantship Program student Jacob Mitchell this past fall/spring! The research was based on looking at distributions of velvet ants in Oklahoma, and finding species never found here before. We would not have known the two species below were state records until we were able to compile all the known records of these insects in our state, and it took a lot of work! We also found a county record for Johnston Co. from this year's BioBlitz at Camp Simpson, and are looking forward to getting it identified to see what species it is!
New state records: Dasymutilla foxi and Dasymutilla snoworum
- Andy and I will be at the Entomological Collections Network Annual Meeting and the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas tomorrow through Wednesday, so we'll likely have posts about that as well.
   Have a great day, and get excited for Andy's next post!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Old scorpions, new tricks

    One of our efforts here at the museum is to take better care of our old material and specimens since it is our job to protect them for future generations. One way of preserving biological materials for several years (many or, in our case, decades) is to store them in alcohol. Back in the day, before there was pure distilled alcohol, specimens would be stored in "spirits" (a.k.a. moonshine, vodka, rum, etc.) because that was the highest grade they could get. Early scientists found that the high alcohol content helped prevent bacterial and fungal growth, thereby slowing decay. Now most specimens are stored in either lab-grade mixtures of ethanol (which is the alcohol found in beer/wine) or isopropyl (rubbing alcohol...mostly just fish now). In our collection of Recent Invertebrates, its 75% ethanol to 25% water. This keeps our specimens in relatively good shape but doesn't completely dry them out (most organisms are a large part water, and by osmosis when you put them in high alcohol content, the water goes out of them into the solution, drying them out). Here is a link of a nice exhibition featuring over a million specimens preserved in alcohol in Berlin, Germany, for an example of a large collection in alcohol.
Scorpions from the 1930s on the right being rehoused in new alcohol on the left.
    Water with osmosis is not the only thing that unfortunately leeches out of the specimens over time with alcohol. Many specimens loose their color, and alcohol soluble chemicals come out. That is why the jar on the right in the picture above is reddish/orange. The fats and other chemicals from the scorpion specimens and the wooden corks used to close the containers leached into the alcohol. And, that is at least 80 years of buildup, since some of the scorpions in that jar were collected in 1931! With the alcohol that color and the corks almost completely dissolved, we decided to give the scorpions a face-lift and replace the nasty alcohol with new, fresh alcohol so we could see the specimens and new cotton stoppers that could easily be removed to look at the specimens or change them out. Now we just have to catalog them, and the scorpions are ready to go for a researcher to study them!
      I hope everyone has a good weekend, and we'll update you more on the collection next week!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Lots o' bees!

   A few weeks ago I attended one of the Whitten-Newman ExplorOlogy programs out in Black Mesa, Oklahoma as a scientist representative. The program was called PaleoExpedition, and the main goal was having the students work with fossils and geology at the Whitten-Newman property in the area. My job as a recent-invertebrate curator and trained entomologist was to help teach the high-school age students about how current animal life can infer about the past, so part of the time they were there I led them on insect-based surveys and experiments in the area.
    One of the first observations we ran into when we arrived at Black Mesa was the massive nest site of Digger bees that were adjacent to the on-site campground being used by many of the paleontologists. They had never seen such a concentration of these bees, and neither had I. The Digger bees dug holes into the sandy soil to lay their nests, some as close as 1 inch apart from each other, and there had to be thousands of nests within a baseball-field area.
Piles of Digger-bee nests. Image by Nick Czaplewski. 
Close up of the nests, including the tunnels built extending from the nests. Image from Nick Czaplewski
     What was also interesting about the nests was some of the bees seemed to use nearby bright rocks, pieces of glass, or sticks to "mark" them. We used the bees and nests as an example of developing a question, creating a hypothesis, and testing the hypothesis with the students. One pair of students did a little survey of the nests to see what was the preferred type of object that they would use to mark nests, and found they generally preferred native rocks after all. Another group of students surveyed whether nests with the tubes on the top of the nests helped prevent velvet ants from entering the nests (they are parasites of the bees), and found it did help deter them. Lastly another group of students surveyed how many types of velvet ants were in the area attacking the bee nests, and found at least three species (all of which I think are county, if not state records!).
     It was interesting trying to tie-in paleontology with bug-hunting, but I think the students enjoyed an opportunity to work with live animal observations, field work, and developing their own experiments. I'm hoping to follow up with some of the students on projects from some of the observations and specimens we gathered from the sites, too. Who knows, maybe I converted a few into future entomologists!
    I'll be posting pictures of the bees and velvet ants shortly, and it was a great opportunity to work with the ExplorOlogy program!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Back with a Buzz

Hey Everyone! We've been on a bit of a blogging hiatus with our department, which is due to how busy our summer has been this year. One grant down, two manuscripts being finished, two ExplorOlogy trips completed with some fantastic kids, and soon to be two workshops in Gainesville, Florida and Ann Arbor, Michigan in August and September, respectively, mean a busy summer will continue ahead!
    We do have two new announcements for our department that we are really excited about: we have a new graduate student, Brent, who will be helping us with our shell accessions this year, and we hired a new full-time Collection Manager, Andy! Both will be starting in August, so we'll be able to accomplish even more in revitalizing our collection.
    Brent, who is doing research on mercury levels in freshwater mollusks here in Oklahoma, will help us with his mollusk knowledge to recurrate and incorporate two new collections into our main shell collection. We received two major donations recently: the Mathers collection of shells collected in the United States, and the Perry Yates Jackson collection of shells collected in the United States and across the world. We also will hopefully hire an undergraduate student to help him with the Jackson collection and gain some experience learning mollusk taxonomy and curation, so we'll have a dynamic duo tackling our bivalves and snails shortly! We're also hoping to write a bit more about these exciting donations this fall as we learn more about the snails and mollusks we're getting.
Cataloged and sorted shells from the Jackson Collection. Notice the care taken to get them identified!
     Andy has a PhD in the systematics of parasitic hymenoptera (wasps that lay eggs in other animals, mostly insects) and will be taking over a lot of the duties that are critical to our department, such as maintaining the collection, managing our staff and students, accessions and loan information, our departmental catalog and records, education activities...the list goes on and on! With his expertise in wasps and other insects he'll also be a huge asset to our collection, museum, and state as a resident expert for the group. Andy will also be helping us out with fieldwork and outreach events, especially Bioblitzes, so that we can have our taxonomic expertise available for Oklahomans. We're really looking forward to having him be a part of our team.
     So those are the big events that are coming up for next month. Next week, however, look for a post about our adventures with ExplorOlogy, and integrating Recent Invertebrates with learning about the scientific method!

Monday, May 13, 2013


   Well, if you've been following our department blog you may have noticed we haven't posted anything for the last couple of weeks. We started out strong...but like a caterpillar munches on leaves and grows rapidly before taking a break with metamorphosis, we are in a quiet stasis mode before our next big change. The reasons? Lots!
   A.) We just closed the Exhibit Bugs Outside of the Box yesterday, which was one of the most successful exhibits we've had at the museum. The Opening was a great success in particular, thanks to all of the hard work of our volunteers, staff, and friends. It was a great run!

   B.) We've been really cranking along on cataloging our collection and accessions, including new donations of slides of Chironomidae flies thanks to Jan Hoover.

Chironomidae fly. Image from
A few weeks ago we also got a donation of over 2,000 or so slides of various aquatic insects and larvae from Lake Texoma as part of a survey by Dr. Gary Schnell, which need to be cataloged and accessioned. Its exciting to get all of this data, but cataloging the information is not the most exciting thing to write about. We did hit some important milestones, however. Thanks to Tamaki, Laura, and Jaime's help we've cataloged over 2,819 species of beetles in our collection...a great start for diversity represented for how small our collection is.
   C.) Our mollusk collection has moved! We had to move at least 12 cabinets to a new space so that we could incorporate the Mather shell accession into our collection. We keep growing! Having four women, three of which are under 5-5", move a hundred or so 15lb steel drawers filled with shell specimens is quite a task. Our team is a tough one!
   D.) 'Tis the season for...grant writing. The Sam Noble Museum has been very generous with our department, especially allowing us to expand our space by moving the mollusk collection. However, like most museums, major upgrades to collections and departments require outside funding to help cover the costs of revamping efforts. Our collection needs a major revamp with space and cabinets to keep pace with the accessions and quality standards we're facing, so we're working hard on writing grants this summer to see if we can make those changes possible.
      So, this summer we'll be a bit more sporadic with our updates as we write and catalog away, but don't worry, the next big thing for our department will on its way soon enough!